Broadcaster’s bias against women reflects problems far beyond the industry

Women still have a sell-by date, shy away from 'serious' subjects and are hampered by childcare issues - it's not just the BBC that needs a shake-up.

Women still have a sell-by date, shy away from ‘serious’ subjects and are hampered by childcare issues – it’s not just the BBC that needs a shake-up

The UK’s main broadcasters have failed to tackle their bias against women, a Lords Committee has concluded.

In a report published today, the Select Committee on Communications highlighted that a number of long-standing obstacles for female presenters and newsreaders have led to a continued gender imbalance in the media.

Evidence given to the committee found that there are three male reporters on flagship TV news programmes for every woman.

The findings come days after the launch of Channel 4’s 360° Diversity Charter, a £5 million initiative which sets strict diversity targets.

The Charter aims to raise the percentage of BAME executives among Channel 4’s 120 most senior staff from eight per cent to 15 per cent in the next five years. It also aims to have LGBT or disabled people representing 12 per cent of senior management.

The guidelines state that executives may lose out on bonuses if they fail to meet these, and other, diversity targets.

It is a laudable initiative which far surpasses the BBC’s efforts; our main broadcaster has a development fund of just £2.1 million for BAME projects. It aims to increase BAME ‘portrayal’ from 10.4 per cent to 15 per cent by 2017.

Comedian Lenny Henry, a long time critic of the lack of diversity on TV, said that the C4 initiative had raised the bar for other broadcasters.

So can these kinds of quotas be used to address the gender imbalance?

The Committee stated:

‘We acknowledge that there are other groups who are not proportionately represented in the media such as disabled people and black and minority ethnic people. These are, however, minority groups. It is the underrepresentation of the majority of the population that is the subject of this inquiry.’

It is precisely the fact that women aren’t a minority which makes their underrepresentation such a complex issue. BAME and LGBT inclusion initiatives are relatively new, but there have been years of attempts to address the monopoly on broadcasting by one half of the population over the other.

How can broadcasters claim to be promoting diversity when they cannot sort out this most basic of inequalities?

The factors that exclude women from top jobs are myriad. Three key ones are:

1. The idea that women are best suited to ‘light’ subjects

According to a 2010 study cited by the committee, women make up only 26 per cent of experts or commentators.

Women reporters tend to be used to cover ‘lighter’ subjects; evidence shows that women comprise just 15 per cent of reporters covering news stories related to government and politics, and 27 per cent of reporters covering stories related to the economy.

But they make up 48 per cent of reporters covering stories about celebrity, arts, media and sport. In a typical month, 72 per cent of contributors to BBC Question Time were men, and 84 per cent of contributors to Radio 4’s Today programme were men.

This is reflective of a much wider problem relating to women’s pursuit of ‘serious’ subjects. A study published in the journal Science today suggests that women are taught to believe that professions in science and engineering require some sort of innate intellectual ‘brilliance’, and that this is more common in men.

The research finds that female intelligence is frequently represented as being down to hard work – that it is not naturally present – and that this is deterring girls from pursuing certain subjects.

It seems very likely that this problem will be compounded when girls grow up seeing men report on the news, and women on celebrities.

2. The problem of childcare

Former BBC presenter Miriam O’Reilly told the committee:

“In BBC News you have to be available 24/7, including nights. Women wanting to push through cannot contest overnight working, even when their children are very young”.

Comparing the UK to other countries, state childcare systems were shown to have a clear impact on female representation.

Dr Cynthia Carter of Cardiff University told the committee that Norway and Sweden were leading on placing women in top roles.

Sweden has the most generous childcare system in the world, with the state spending SEK 56.6bn (£5 bn) a year on subsidising preschool services (more than its annual defence budget.)

The report recommended that broadcasters should offer a range of support mechanisms for women such as childcare vouchers, childcare advisers, and crèches.

3. The female sell-by date

Scandinavian countries were described as having a ‘genuine cultural attitude’ to the effect that equality and diversity are positive things. The lack of this in Britain is starkly illustrated by the lack of older women seen on television.

As the report says, ‘although the majority of over 50s in the UK are women (53 per cent), men still make up 82 per cent of TV presenters over the age of 50’.

Miriam O’Reilly and Olenka Frenkiel gave evidence to the committee stating that they had been discriminated against due to their age, leading the committee to conclude that an ‘informal culture of discrimination’ exists.

The internet and press treatment of TV classicist Mary Beard brought this issue into the mainstream; not so much the fact that broadcasters are discriminatory, but more that viewers, the public, people, view older women in the public eye as somehow distasteful.

The Committee states that:

“Given the dangers quotas could pose to editorial content, we do not recommend the use of mandatory quotas for female experts in broadcast news and  current affairs at this time.”

This is a clear recognition of the fact that changes have to be made long before the issue reaches the newsroom, changes to education, to how the press treats prominent women, to how we apportion and fund childcare.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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